Thien Mu Pagoda is situated on Ha Khe hill, on the northern bank of the Perfume River, a few miles southwest of the Citadel of Hue.
Thien Mu Pagoda has several legends but all talked about a woman who once appeared on the hill and foretold that a Lord would come and built a pagoda and people will pray here for the country’s prosperity. Then the woman allegedly vanished into thin air after saying these words. During a tour within the village, Lord Nguyen Hoang, the first Nguyen lord heard the story and ordered the construction of the temple of the Thien Mu or translated in English as Heavenly Lady Pagoda.
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The construction began in 1601. The pagoda was simple and later it was renovated by Lord Nguyen Phuc Tan in 1665. The pagoda was expanded during the renovation. In 1710, Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu funded the giant bronze bell. It is big enough that when it is being ring it can reach 10 km radius. By 1714, Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu ordered another series of constructions and expansion. It was the largest expansion done in the history of the pagoda. During this expansion, shrines for the Jade Emperor, the Ten Kings, hall for preaching dharma, towers for storing sutras, meditation halls and study halls, living quarters for the sangha, the bell towers and drum towers and the three gates were all erected. The Phuoc Dien Tower in front of the pagoda was added in 1864 by Emperor Thieu Tri.
(Phuoc Dien tower – Hue travel guide)
After the unification of the modern Vietnam and during the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty, the first Emperor Gia Long patronized the pagoda. Later his son and successor, Minh Mang funded further expansion and renovation of the temple.
Emperor Thieu Trị, who succeeded Minh Mạng, erected the Tu Nhan Tower in 1844 and now known as the Phuoc Duyen tower. The octagonal shaped brick tower stands 21 meters high and has seven stories; each of the stories is dedicated to a different form of Buddha. The tower has stood there since, overlooking the Perfume River, and has become synonymous with the landscape of Hue and the Perfume River. Its impact is such that it has become the unofficial symbol of the city.
( Thien Mu pagoda – Hue travel guide)
The temple also has a large statue of marble turtle, a symbol of longevity for Vietnamese. The tablet contains the records of the architectural history of the tower, as well as various poems composed by Thieu Trị.
The pagoda and most of its buildings were severely damaged during a tropical storm in 1904. Emperor Than Thai authorized reconstruction in 1907 although until today only few were restored. Thus the pagoda and its buildings are not that grand as it was before the tropical storm.
Aside from the building there are several reasons why people visit the pagoda and vicinity nowadays. Among the garden and grounds of the temple, a stupa has been erected in honor of Thich Don Hau, the abbot of the pagoda during the reconstruction phase in the 20th century. Later on, the far north end of the complex became a large cemetery at the base of the Truong Son Mountain and a well-kept garden of pine trees. The temple also houses the Austin motor vehicle in which Thich Quang Duc used to get to Saigon before his self-immolation in 1963, a sign of protest against the Diem’s regime’s violation of religious freedom.
Legends say that the first Nguyen Dynasty Emperor constructed the Citadel due to the woman’s prophecy. True or not, still the pagoda and its grounds hold a vital part of the history of Vietnam. Over the centuries, damaged and restored, the pagoda reflects the city’s endurance over time.